What makes the web?

A few things recently have made me wonder what exactly makes this thing we call “the web” what it is? What makes it useful? What makes it materially different from anything that has come before? The only observations I have come up with seem obvious–even banal–on their own. But put them together, and they produce this incredibly powerful…thing.

Content: A Book

Never before has such a wealth of information been available through a single access point. There is vastly more knowledge available elsewhere than there is on the internet (in libraries, newspaper archives, and on millions of people’s bookshelves), but you can’t get at it through a single wire, person, or contact point like you can with the internet.

Indexing: A Catalogue

Altavista, Google, Teoma…. There are others, and there will be more and better search engines in the future. But even now, the indexes of the web dwarf by manyorders of magnitude any previous attempt to condense and collate keywords and metadata.

Community: A Café

Content and indexes make for a great library, but people don’t hang out in libraries just for fun. Yet people have made the internet their homes–sometimes in a nearly literal sense. People have always come together in groups, and every form of technology that has allowed communication (letters, telegraph, telephone, ham radio) has fostered new communities. The community aspect was one of the earliest properties to emerge from electronic networks (email), and it has been in continuous evolution since then, through dial-up BBSs, on-line forums, chat boards and blogs.

Just as with Content and Indexing, there is very little that qualitatively distinguishes on-line communities from their real-life counterparts. It’s the quantity, ubiquity, and fluidity of their creation and make-up that makes the big difference.

Connectedness: An Address Book

Every web page can be connected to any other by a single step. This means that every piece of knowledge can be instantly referenced by every other, and every community is within shouting (whispering?) distance of every other. Connections and comparisons that were previously difficult or elaborate, now are suddenly simple. The power of a network increases with its size (Metcalfe’s Law), and also with the number of connections between its nodes.

Again, this networking effect has always been present in human communities: someone knows someone else, who knows someone or something else, and so the chain goes. But the speed and volume of connections on the internet is vastly greater.


Going by these observations, there is very little the web does that has not been done elsewhere. Yet I feel that the web is qualitatively different from all that has gone before. Paradoxically, though, it seems to be the quantitative differences that combine to make a qualitative difference.

Am I wrong here? Am I missing something? Is the “Internet” really something different at all? Please enlighten me with your comments!

(See also Part 2 of this article.

The Microcontent Client

An interesting and important article on where “web content” is currently at, and where it is going. It takes in content creation, aggregation, tools, and the culture surrounding all of these. (Via DollarShort.org)

“The microcontent client is an extensible desktop application based around standard Internet protocols that leverages existing web technologies to find, navigate, collect, and author chunks of content for consumption by either the microcontent browser or a standard web browser. The primary advantage of the microcontent client over existing Internet technologies is that it will enable the sharing of meme-sized chunks of information using a consistent set of navigation, user interface, storage, and networking technologies. In short, a better user interface for task-based activities, and a more powerful system for reading, searching, annotating, reviewing, and other information-based activities on the Internet.”

I certainly find my web habits moving in the direction outlined in this article. I skim, I scan, and I have twenty-three browser tabs open as I’m writing this. Opera suits these browsing habits of mine: tabs, mouse gestures, opening new windows in the background, search functions integrated in the address bar, the ability to quickly turn images of/on… All of these functions make it a lean, mean, browsing machine.

Continue reading “The Microcontent Client”

Usability in print media

In the article Why Usability Matters, Monica Moses looks at how usability (and info architecture) principles can be applied to print journalism.

“Text is the hardest format we give readers. It is potentially the most precise — and perhaps even the most satisfying. But reading text is essentially unnatural. Nobody is born knowing how. Even when we get good at it, reading text requires letter-by-letter, word-by-word translation by the brain. It’s work.”

It’s all pretty obvious stuff, like splitting up text into easily scannable lists, but I couldn’t help but wonder where this might lead if taken to extremes…. The latest Stephen King 600-pager reduced to a 4-page summary of bullet points and plot graphs? 😉

Lies, damn lies, and usability metrics

I like Jakob Nielsen. I like his drive and passion for great usability. But he does produce some severely dodgy statistics from time to time. This week, in his Alertbox column, he headlines with the quote:

“Software has great potential for getting better, as shown by an under-appreciated feature in Windows XP that can save users $2,000 per year.”

In the article he explains how he gets at this figure. I won’t duplicate the calculation here, but the heart of it is the assertion that a 10% increase in reading speed (by using Cleartype) results in a 10% increase in productivity.

Sorry Jakob; doesn’t follow. A 10% increase in reading speed means that you’ve got 10% more time to spend nattering with your colleagues over coffee.

A 50% increase in reading speed, now that would be useful. But I doubt very much if the productivity gain would be anywhere near that. Probably closer to 10-20%. The main reason for this is that hardly anyone spends all their time reading continuously. Most of the time you read a short chunk, then do something else. And the time it takes to go from reading to something else will swallow up 10% with ease. Joel Spolsky writes about exactly this in his article on task switching.